What’s in a name? Well, for the state of Florida, quite a bit — including a nod to Juan Ponce de Leon, the first recorded European to land on the shores of the subtropical peninsula around April 2, 1513. Taken by the vibrant flowers that peppered the landscape (no doubt a welcome sight for sea-weary eyes) and in honor of the Spanish Easter celebration of Pascua Florida (“feast of flowers”) that coincided with his arrival, Ponce de Leon dubbed the land “La Florida.” The rest, as they say, is history.
To celebrate the area’s growth since that day, the Florida Department of State has launched Viva Florida 500, an ongoing statewide celebration that runs through 2013. If ever there were a year to skip the theme-park rides in favor of a rare museum exhibit or interactive historic tour, this is it. We’ve compiled a list of three significant Florida cities where you’ll find attractions, landmarks or travel specials to help you make the most of your Viva Florida 500 experience. All you have to do is pack your bags. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
Juan Ponce de Leon may have been the first Spanish settler to grace Florida’s shores, but he certainly wasn’t the last. In 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles docked his ship to develop what would become the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in the entire nation, thus making St. Augustine the country’s oldest city. While you’re here, explore the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the historic Castillo de San Marcos fort and marvel at the works of Pablo Picasso at the St. Augustine Visitor Center’s “Art & Arena” exhibit (on display through August 11). In honor of Viva Florida 500, guests at Casa Monica Hotel can enjoy a bevy of citrus-themed amenities through May, such as orange-essence-scented towels, Florida orange lip balm, citrus-laced dishes and fresh juice upon departure. Or, if you don’t mind staying 30 minutes away in Palm Coast, consider Hammock Beach Resort. The luxury hotel’s Viva 500 Package includes two nights’ accommodations and daily breakfast for two for $500. (This special is also available at other Grand Golf Resorts of Florida properties in Orlando and Tampa Bay.)
The capital city is best known for its political happenings and its status as home to the Florida State University Seminoles, but this year, there’s a lot more to discover in Tallahassee. Point your compass (or GPS) toward the Florida Historic Capitol Museum for the “Navigating New Worlds” exhibit, a collection of rare maps that date as far back as 1493. Beef up your local trivia by poring over the Florida State Archives’ special selection of historical records that highlight key moments in the state’s history. And, before you leave, set sail for the Museum of Florida History to take in the “Forever Changed” exhibit, which features a 16th-century Spanish ship display.
It’s easy to understand why notable minds like Harry S. Truman, John James Audubon and Ernest Hemingway found inspiration in Key West — just one sunset over the clear water in Florida’s southernmost city is enough to make even hard-nosed businessmen consider trading in their power suits for bathing suits. The Audubon House Gallery of Natural History, Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum and Truman Little White House (the president’s winter home) are must-visit time capsules that have preserved important parts of the city’s history. If you book the Ocean Key Resort & Spa’s “Old Town Get Down” package, you’ll receive one-day tickets to each attraction along with your accommodations; however, a stay in the Keys also means you’re close to the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Southernmost on the Beach and the Four-Star La Mer Hotel and Dewey House.
Photos courtesy of The Zimmerman Agency, Southernmost Resorts, Salamander Hotels and Resorts